In perusing our overflowing bookshelves for something to read last weekend, I happened to pull out Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly, an old goldie from 1984. Oh my goodness, talk about the old saying, “History has a tendency to repeat itself.”
The very first paragraph of the first chapter, entitled “Pursuit of Policy Contrary to Self-interest”, speaks to a truism that you’d think we’d all be used to by now:
“A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of higher office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”
And here we’d all been asking ourselves these questions with respect to the jaw-droppingly poor judgment being so ably demonstrated by our current leaders – nearly everywhere. It turns out that this is nothing new; why do we continue to be taken by surprise?! Barbara Tuchman’s 4 extensively described examples in history resulted in needless, unwinnable and destructive wars or religious schisms, known to be unwinnable from the get-go and continually warned against throughout by smart, loyal people paid to provide trusted advice. But we needn’t limit ourselves to legendary stories of war to remind ourselves of government action that is contrary to self-interest. Action contrary to the self-interest of the leaders who make the poor decisions, of the Party they lead, and of the citizens they “serve”. Some current examples:
- Can someone explain how Brexit is going to end up with a positive arrangement for the majority of UK citizens, or even a minority of UK citizens? A positive outcome for the government itself, who started this quagmire and still has no Party consensus? OMG, who needs to start a war when you can just start Brexit! 😉
- Can someone explain what President Trump was thinking when he caused nearly one million people to be out of work for 35 days recently, not to mention financially impacting all the people who counted on their business and their government services, all to no advantage whatsoever? He had to know there would be little advantage, politically or otherwise. He had to know, deep down inside, that this decision to shut down the government was not in his greater self-interest. Didn’t he?
- Can someone explain how imposing crippling and unwarranted tariffs on steel and aluminum of close allies could be good for the U.S. government that imposed them? Is it really in their best interest to treat their allies so shabbily that they lose their trust and respect? Is it really in their self-interest to have the predicable reciprocal tariffs imposed on targeted U.S, exports like soy beans, whiskey, pork, and motorcycles, thus hurting those U.S. industries? Is it really in their best interests to add costs to their domestic products that use imported steel and aluminum that is not available domestically, hurting other U.S. businesses? Surely wise advice to the contrary was offered before this self-defeating policy was put in place.
- Can someone explain what our previous provincial government in little old New Brunswick was thinking when it bid on the Francophonie Games with a suspiciously affordable proposed cost of $17M and then realized it would cost more like $130M, with half the bill the responsibility of an economically struggling province with a population of just 750,000? Did they think that no-one would notice if they just didn’t tell anyone until it was too late? Just whose interest was that going to serve?
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure you can all think of some current examples of governments (or maybe other organizations) undertaking actions where it’s clear from the beginning that they’re going to shoot themselves in the foot (or the head), and all with taxpayers’ money.
Should we be reassured when we are reminded that this is nothing new, that throughout history people in charge (kings, queens, popes, presidents, prime ministers, CEOs, you name it) have been refusing to take the very best advice on how to avoid disaster? It is true that people in charge have to balance many competing and conflicting interests in making their decisions – invariably having to do with money and staying in power – but even then, there are a frightening number of poor decisions made “on our behalf”. Barbara Tuchman’s book made me realize that what we are witnessing now is nothing new, but I must admit that knowing this doesn’t make me feel any better.
Oh yes, and Happy Valentine’s Day! ❤